The Unwritten Bucket List Loses Another Item

The view from left field at Charlotte Sports Park, spring training home of the Tampa Bay Rays. (Photo by John Nash)

Before I ever loved basketball – before I even truly knew what love was, in fact – I loved baseball.

It was 1975. I was 9. And it was beautiful, even after it broke my heart.

The Boston Red Sox went to the World Series that summer and captured my heart my heart while doing so.

My first favorite player was Doug Griffin, a little-known second baseman who played on a team that included a host of quick-hitting one-namers — Yaz. Rico. Pudge. Rooster. Louis.

The team featured two pitchers that season – one who gave me my first autograph (Jim Willoughby) and one who gave me my first double-entendre schoolboy giggle (Dick Pole).

As the 1970s rolled by players like Fred Lynn, Jim Rice, Bill Lee, and Butch Hobson would just continue to grow in stature to a young boy growing up in Maine, which was as much Red Sox country as downtown Boston.

I loved just two sports in my life … baseball and basketball. Basketball would be the girl with the great body and all the right moves and we were connected by affection for one another … but baseball, that first love, is something you never forget.

All these years since 1975 – and that’s 41 and counting – I’ve seen baseball games played far and wide at all kinds of different levels.

I’ve seen a 10-year-old national championship game in Florida. I’ve seen a college no-hitter in a conference championship game. I’ve been to dozens of Minor League Baseball games. And, I’ve sat in the nosebleeds at a World Series in New York City in 2015.

But I had never been to a spring training game.

Until Monday.

That’s when I trekked to Port Charlotte, Fla., to the Charlotte Sports Park – home of the Tampa Bay Rays’ Single-A farm team and site of the parent squad’s annual spring training pilgrimage.

I joined an old friend of mine and we watched the Pittsburgh Pirates hold off the Rays by a 5-4 count.

We saw players we knew – Evan Longoria of Rays and David Freese of the Pirates – both stood at third base not more than 10 yards from us when the game began.

By the time it was over we had seen a plethora of players take the field, grab a bat and throw off the mound.

We drank beer, ate a steak and cheese, circled the stadium and watched baseball at a leisurely pace under a gorgeous Florida sunshine.

Like baseball itself, it was almost perfect.

If I’m going to watch a sport on television, I’d pick basketball. College basketball to be specific.

But if you’re going to give me a ticket to go to a game, I’m likely to pick baseball.

I’m old school that way.

I like to sit back, relax, let the game unfold, while people watching and eaves dropping and talking to the people around me. (One of my Facebook friends is a woman I met when I trekked to Pittsburgh to watch the Red Sox play the Pirates in a three-game series a few summers ago at PNC Park).

To this day, baseball is pretty much the same it was when I was nine.

Nine innings. Four balls. Three strikes. No clock ticking down.

You throw the ball. The ball is hit. You field the ball.

Watching from the stands with 5,000 people was just what I needed on my first Monday in Florida, this latest work-ation that I find myself undertaking in the spring of 2017.

Would a Red Sox game have been better? Not necessarily. If the scheduled had fit better, I would have tried, but it didn’t, so that’s OK, too.

I don’t have a bucket list of things I want to do before I die. But I do have a mental list and I’d say attending a spring training game was on there somewhere.

Not anymore.

The played baseball on Monday in Port Charlotte and I was there to see it.

Mentally, she’s checked off.

Losing My Connecticut ‘Family’

The Amoroso Family -- from left, Johnny, Julie, Jake and John. (Photo blatantly stolen from Julie's Facebook page).

The Amoroso Family — from left, Johnny, Julie, Jake and John. (Photo blatantly stolen from Julie’s Facebook page).

The boy walked up the aisle of the grocery store and as our eyes met it was a classic case of the two-way, “Do I know you?” look flashing back and forth, from me to him and back again.

I knew I knew him, but how, why and where from were the questions I had. After all, just days earlier I had moved three hours south, from Maine to Connecticut to begin working a new job.

I didn’t know anybody outside of my boss at the paper who hired me and my landlords, who allowed me to move into the apartment behind their house, on the second floor of their barn, which doubled as a two-car garage and shed area below my living space.

Ah, the landlords. John and Julie Amoroso. Good people. Very good people. They had two boys. Johnny and Jake. Johnny was in eighth grade, Jake was in sixth. They were baseball players and right outside my window was a batting cage.

One of the reasons I moved in was because the thought of being awakened every morning by the ping of a baseball striking an aluminum bat was appealing to me. And, out in the driveway were two basketball hoops, and how many nights would the dribbling of a basketball and bodies crashing into the garage doors (Nope, that wasn’t a foul) lull me to sleep.

But I digress.

Back inside the grocery story nine years ago, it dawned on me. The boy in front of me that morning was Jake, the landlord’s youngest son.

Today, Jake is a 20-year-old college junior, a right-handed pitcher at Pace University. He’s no longer a boy. He’s all but a man and I’ve had both the privilege and the pleasure of watching him grow up, seeing him fall in love with a great girlfriend, Angela.

Johnny, too.

I watched them both pitch for St. Joseph High School, capturing them in action with my camera as they fired fastballs for strikes.

I watched them both go off to play in college, too.

My monthly rent no doubt helped pay their tuition over the years, and that’s a great feeling if it did.

But they’re gone now and so too are the landlords, their parents, John and Julie.

I’m reminded of that every time I leave my apartment and see their barren and empty house.

My Connecticut family is gone.

• • •

There has been a running joke over the past nine years … a couple of them actually.

The first was the fact I was denied pool rights after I moved in. And I was fine with that. I had asked matter-of-factly when I signed my lease if I could use the pool and was told, “Nope, pool access not included.”

As such, nine years later, I’ve never set foot in the pool. Not even a toe.

A few years ago, when Julie found out John had denied me, she had a good laugh and told me I could use it anytime. Thus the running joke became I would jump in buck naked and leave behind a pair of my boxers on the diving board so they knew I had finally used it.

I never did.

The second running joke was that I had stayed so long that I became the “Crazy Uncle Who Lives Above The Garage.”

But “Crazy Uncle” meant family and as odd as it sounds that’s kind of what the Amoroso clan became to me over the last nine years.

My Connecticut family.

I watched their boys grow up, literally going from boys to men. I mourned the loss of their family dog, Maya, when she passed. I felt their pain when one of them was laid off, or one of them had to have surgery.

When I had to have my surgery a few years back — just a minor walk-in procedure — it was Jake who got up at 5;30 in the morning to take me all the way to Norwalk Hospital.

When I was dealing with another health issue, Julie and John told me to call them anytime day or night if I needed anything.

How many nights did I come home from work and find the family sitting around the fire pit, spending quality time together and drinking beers with family and friends.

On special October evening they even set up a high-def, big-screen television in the back of John’s pick-up so we could watch the Red Sox play in the World Series as the burning embers of the fire snapped and crackled at our feet.

And last Thanksgiving Julie, knowing I was six hours away from my real family for the ninth straight year, hooked me up with a plate.

Like I said, Connecticut family.

• • •

A few years back, the family tried to sell their home. The boys were older, life’s circumstances had changed. It was time.

Fate kept them around a few more years, though. That’s something I appreciated more than they’ve ever known.

Then out of the blue, with the house off the market, a buyer appeared.

The property on Washington Parkway, in the Lordship Section of Stratford, was about to change hands.

The family promised to find me an apartment if the new owner didn’t want a tenant living on the property. They had my back in that regard.

The buyer, however, liked the fact I had lived here for nine years and would provide a steady income stream to help her pay for the house.

This new buyer is a professor at the University of Bridgeport. She has two dogs. And she wants me to sign a one-year lease at the same rent, which I’m willing to do.

But she’s not the Amoroso family.

Nobody is.

I’ve lived in this space, with this roof over my head, for nine years, two months, and nine days.

I’ve never lived in a single place any longer than I’ve lived here.

The Amoroso family is a big reason why I’ve remained here.

They’re a very special family. They’ve raised two great boys, which in the 21st century is not an easy thing to do.

I’m still kind of numb over what has transpired over the last months. I don’t embrace change easily and I look ahead with great trepidation.

My Connecticut family is gone.

I miss them already.

 

2016: The Year Our World Grew Darker

Arnold Palmer, left, and Jose Fernandez (inset) were both lost to the world on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016.

Arnold Palmer, left, and Jose Fernandez (inset) were both lost to the world on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016.

Sunday was, perhaps, the roughest day of all.

The future was taken from us in the waters off Miami. The past faded away inside the cold, sterile confines of a hospital in Pittsburgh.

Jose Fernandez, 24, a Major League Baseball baseball player whose story of his escape from Cuba, and success at such a young age, caught the eye of sports fans young and old was killed in a boat crash in the wee hours of the morning.

Later that day, the great Arnold Palmer, 87, the man credited with changing how the general public looked at the sport of golf, succumbed while waiting for heart surgery.

The kid and the king.

Gone.

The year of our Lord — or 2016, as the calendar calls it — has been a tough one.

In a time where the world needs hope, we have people being taken away from us at an alarming rate. What stuns as much as their deaths, though, is the realization of what we’ve lost with each passing.

In the spotlight of our stages, Prince and David Bowie and their artistry could lift us up from the lowest of lows. Our hearts broke when we heard the news — two more days when the music died.

Muhammed Ali was the greatest not just because of what he did in the boxing ring, but the effect he had outside of it, through the rest of the world — a place that has grown especially dark in 2016.

Death after death has rocked the year the 2016, but it is not just those losses that have created darker and sadder times.

Every day, we are seeing innocent people dying by the never-ending wave of culture-created violence in our country.

We claim we’ve had enough, and we step out on the streets to protest. But, when those whose hearts are true and pure and care enough to try to fight back the right way, when they go home, we leave ourselves vulnerable to our lesser side who destroy not just the physical objects in front of them, but the hope of all of us who think somebody we’ll find a better way for us all.

Black lives matter. Blue lives matter. All lives matter.

We are living in a society where nobody matters and, sadly, we prove it every single day in our actions as a society.

We walk down the street staring at our cell phones. Instead of talking to one another, we text. Sit down and visit? Why bother when we can just e-mail and stay home to Netflix and chill.

Until somebody else is loss and then we are shocked.

So, yes, we weep for our losses – for Prince and Bowie and Ali … and even Jose and Arnie … but we must soon start to weep for ourselves.

Once we mourn what we have truly lost, only then can we begin to heal.

And we need to heal.

Fast.

We have no true leader before us to step up and follow, so we wander, aimlessly, and as the world gets darker it grows harder for us to see our way.

Will it become so dark that we can no longer see our way back? Or the way forward?

There are still three months left in 2016 — one quarter of the year.

Anything is possible.

More people will die — famous, infamous, strangers, friends, family. When we think we can’t be shocked anymore, something will stun us into complete silence.

The world, I fear, will grow darker still.

I do try to find the light and sometimes there it is … in the smile of a child whose life is full of hope … in the embrace of friends and family … in that glimpse of something magical that is there for just a minute and then gone with the next waft of wind.

But that’s not enough.

I need more.

We need more.

Jose Fernandez came to this country full of hope. Arnold Palmer once raised an army and changed an entire sport.

Right now, we need an army of hope to light a path to tomorrow before its too late.

Thirty-two years later, here I am still on the job

Magic Johnson was one of the best ever to wear No. 32. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

Magic Johnson was one of the best ever to wear No. 32. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

In the history of sports, so many greats wore No. 32.

Jim Brown. Magic Johnson. Steve Carleton. Yes, even Orenthal James Simpson.

The number popped in my head today as the 2016 high school sports season officially opened here in the state of Connecticut.

Football has been going at it for about a week now, but today everybody else jumped on that new-season bandwagon. Everybody is tied for first, nobody is in last place and everybody is hopeful.

Hope springs eternal, is the cliche. In the fall, it is especially so.

Thirty-two years ago this month, I received a phone call that changed my life and every fall thereafter. A foot-in-the-door job was offered to me, working a part-time gig at the Bangor Daily News Sports Department.

New England journalism legend Bud Leavitt, who hired me and became my first boss, talks with his good friend, Red Sox legend Ted Williams. (Photo courtesy of the Bangor Daily News)

New England journalism legend Bud Leavitt, who hired me and became my first boss, talks with his good friend, Red Sox legend Ted Williams. (Photo courtesy of the Bangor Daily News)

All I had to do was go in, shake hands with a New England journalism legend (Mr. Bud Leavitt, the BDN’s Executive Editor, for those of you who don’t know) and I had the job.

I don’t know if it was really that easy, but it seemed so.

I was 18 years old andI swallowed everything up as quickly as I could. I knew I loved to write and I knew I loved sports, and here I was putting my two passions together.

Three months later, I had my first byline. Two and a half years after that I was promoted into a full-time position. Twenty-nine years and a few months from that date I’m looking at a different kind of “32” straight in the eyes and counting  my blessings.

For 32 years, I’ve had the pleasure — no, the honor — of working as a professional sports journalist.

Save for gigs as a waiter, a pizza delivery driver, and a substitute teacher — just temp jobs to help make ends meet — it’s all I’ve ever known.

 

My business is changing and I’ll admit it makes me sad. My chosen profession is dying and it breaks my heart to realize that I likely won’t be able to retire from a job I love to do.

I’m trying like hell to hang on, but every year it gets a little tougher and the writing on the wall grows a little more in font size.

Other than the fact that I’m really good at what I do (it’s the only thing in my life that I’ve ever been confident about), I’ve learned to do it all, and that’s helped keep me employed,  as well. Write. Page layout. Copy-editing Photography. Sports. Arts. Hard news. I really can do it all.

I started as a 20-hour-a-week sports clerk and moved up to a full-time sportswriter. Later in my career, in the space of one week’s time in New Hampshire, I went from being an assistant Sunday editor to the Sunday Sports Editor to the Managing Sports Editor.

A couple of years after that, I was laid off from that newspaper along with 10 percent of our work force, though they kept me working as a lowly freelancer … making more money while working less hours.

Go figure.

That was 13 years and two states ago.

Now, here I am in Connecticut, and there I was on Thursday morning at a Norwalk High School girls volleyball tryout.

As I watched a group of girls go through the routine of their season-opening drills, the coach whistled the veterans to the side and sent a large contingent of newcomers out onto the court.

Norwalk High's Edona Jakaj, right, is a senior leader for her volleyball team, even though she's not a captain.

Norwalk High’s Edona Jakaj, right, is a senior leader for her volleyball team, even though she’s not a captain.

Behind these rough-around-the-edge newbies, though, was one of the team’s seniors, who instead of sitting down and resting stayed court-side, yelling and cheering for the younger girls to try their hardest and do their best.

That girl, who I had gotten to know from being a good track hurdler in the spring, is a senior, but she’s not a captain.

But what a leader. And a what a story I’ll get to tell.

And today was just the first day of a new season.

For 32 years, I’ve been lucky to wake up and do a job I love to do. I need to remember that more often, even during these trying (dying?) times in the journalism industry.

Larry Bird is on deck (No. 33) with Walter Payton (No. 34) beyond that.

Hopefully, I’m still doing this when I have to figure out who the great No. 35s are.

THE BEST OF ME: The story of Greg Braley

The first person I ever knew who died was Greg Braley, a former baseball team who was 15 years old when he was accidentally shot and killed by a friend back in our hometown of Orrington, Maine. Thirteen year after his death — which occurred when I was just 12 — I wrote this piece for the Bangor Daily News’ “Midweek” edition which came on Wednesdays. It was written in the year 1991, this I can still see a lot of immaturity in my writing. Though it is sports-related, it appeared as a “Page 2” column in Midweek. I still from time to time think of Greg and that day when I found out he was gone.

• • •

A Friend Remembered

It was while driving through the backroads of my hometown, Orrington, when his name leaped from the file cabinet of my mind.

His name was Greg Braley. He was three years old than I, yet the one bond we shared was baseball.

Farm League baseball, to be exact. The game at its most innocent terms.  No pressure to win. Just pressure to love the game and help build a foundation for your future.

We played our games at a field adjacent to St. Teresa’s Church in Brewer. It’s now a park with swings and slides. It seems like a long time ago.

It was while driving up the twisting and winding Swett’s Pond Road in South Orrington when it hit me. It really wasn’t all that long ago that Greg Braley and I learned to love the game of baseball.

I passed a road sign which stood erect on the side of the road. It was next to a dirt road which quickly wound its way up into the woods. The sign read, “Pine Hill Cemetery.”

I thought of Greg. He is buried there.

The year I played Farm League baseball with Greg Braley was my first year in the game. It was his last year at that level.

To my recollection, Greg was the first athlete I ever looked up to. He was my first sports hero, if you will. He was older. Better. I wanted to be as good as he was.

I turned around and entered the cemetery just to drive by the gravestone and remember — as I had done on my bicycle in the weeks after he died.

I found his headstone and stared at the words inscribed into the granite: Braley, Gregory N. Son. 1963-1978.

I was stunned.

Thirteen years had passed since he and a friend had reportedly been fooling around with a gun. It went off and killed him. Not only was I surprised that 13 years had passed since it happened, but it hit me for the first time that Greg was only 15 when he died.

I was 12 when it happened. After Greg left Farm League for the big time — Little League — I just saw him in passing. I’d occasionally stray to the Little League field in Orrington and watch the games. We weren’t friends by any means, but I still looked up to him.

The day it happened, I was riding my bike by the house where it happened. I saw the ambulance and the police cars. I talked to a man who lived across the road. He wasn’t sure what had happened.

Hours later, I heard. Greg had been killed.

At 12, one does not understand death. Maybe that’s why I was so shocked when it hit me that he was only 15 when it happened and 13 years had passed.

Just like that I went through the whole life-is-short, enjoy-it-while-you-can routine. It is, of course. And, you should.

I believe on this Memorial Day week that has one grows older, the younger a person dies the more tragic it becomes.

In 1978, I was sorry Greg Braley had died. I’m even sorrier today.

 

The Day I Went To The World Series

My view for Game 3 of the 2015 World Series (Photo by John Nash)

My view for Game 3 of the 2015 World Series (Photo by John Nash)

Buried somewhere deep in my box of regrets is the fact that in the Summer of 1996, I didn’t take the time and effort to go to Atlanta to attend the Summer Olympics.

I had a friend who lived just outside the city, so I had a free place to say. It’s the Olympics, so I would have taken tickets to anything … judo, crew, rhythmic gymnastics.

Instead, though, I let the opportunity pass. And, 19 years later, it’s a regret I carry with me.

So when the World Series came to New York City, courtesy of the National League champion New York Mets, I knew I faced living with another regret.

To go, or not to go?

As a life-long sports fan, I’ve been lucky enough to have seen countless games at Fenway Park. I’ve seen in the Bruins play twice and the Patriots play. Since moving to the tri-state area, I’ve been to Madison Square Garden for countless college basketball games and one NBA game.

But this was different. This was big time. This was history.

A couple twists of fate made my decision easier.

First came my own stupidity.

After a late Friday night at the office, I was supposed to wake up at 7:30 a.m. and attend the State Cross Country championship meets for work. Sadly, I never switched over my “p.m.” to “a.m.”, so when I woke up at 9:15 a.m., Saturday morning, the meet had already started.

From home, I was able to follow the action and work on writing a story and it was while waiting for results to come in that the idea popped into my head.

I could go to the World Series.

I missed the opportunity to get tickets at — ahem — face value, so I’d have to either scalp a ticket (too risky), or purchase one through a third-party website.

I started checking out StubHub and SeatGeek and, needless to say, tickets were over-priced … $600 for standing room only.

It was still early, though, and I decided when tickets dropped down into the $500 range I’d consider snatching one up. If it was the right seat.

Over the course of the morning, our local region had a couple of state champions so I set up telephone interviews with both of them and, after telling one of them I was planning on attending a game, the conversation ended with our girl’s champion telling me to “Have a great time at the game.”

I hadn’t even brought a ticket yet, but she pretty much knew I’d be going. In a way, so did I.

So I returned to my hunt — which was like a cyber-fishing trip. A ticket would pop up for $425 and before I could snap the line it was sold. Ditto for a $375 ticket, in a great seat. That was the big one that got away.

Game time was 8:07 p.m., so I’d have to decided by 5 p.m. whether or not I was going to spend the money, slapping it on a credit card and taking advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Somewhere after the four o’clock hour it came. The right seat at the right price.

I bit. I bought.

I was going to Game 3 of the 2015 World Series between the Mets and the Kansas City Royals.

An hour train ride and a long subway trip later (word of advice: never take the local when you can take the express) I stepped out of the Mets-Willets Point subway station in Queens, seeing a glowing, larger than life Citi Field just hundreds of yards away.

Outside, thousands of Mets fans — and a handful of Royal fans — were milling about.

There was electricity in the air, the kind of ambience you don’t find at a regular season game — and I’ve been to Citi Field perhaps a half dozen times in nine years.

This was the World Series feeling that I wondered about and wanted to feel first hand. You can sense it on television — which is still and forever will be the best seat in the house — but to feel it in real life is something special.

I don’t and will never call myself a Mets fan, but I am a follower. Growing up a Red Sox fan, I will never root for the Yankees or watch them on television for my own satisfaction or enjoyment.

The Mets, however, are tolerable, despite what happened back in 1986 when Rich Gedman didn’t catch Bob Stanley’s pitch, and the ball rolled through Bill Buckner’s legs.

Three World Championships since 2004 eases a life-time full of pain, that’s for sure.

Thus, going into the game, I was pulling for the Mets.

I made my way into the stadium and before finding my seat I bought $29 worth of food — a beer, a cheeseburger/fries combo and a water.

My seat was in Section 510 — the top ring of seats around Citi Field — but it was only six rows up, slightly behind home plate.

I could see the whole field and the stadium was aglow.

The lights were brighter. The fans were louder. The crack of each bat sounded like an explosion — especially Michael Conforto’s first home run, giving the Mets the early lead.

It was a tight game and along with 45,000 other fans, I was caught up in the mood and could feel the tension in each at-bat and, toward the end, each and every pitch.

Then I experienced something I had never experienced in my nearly 40 years of having sports be such a major part of my life.

During the eighth inning, when Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy made an error that gave the Royals the lead, I felt the air being sucked out of Citi Field and 45,000 fans go silent.

I’ve been in big gymnasiums that have gone silent with a last-second, game-winning shot.

But this was different.

It was like you could hear the swoosh of everything disappearing as the ball went into the outfield, allowing runs to score and suddenly putting the Royals into the lead.

It was almost eery to feel it.

In the bottom of the ninth, the Mets rallied. Citi Field was again filled with the spark that only the tension of a World Series could bring to a moment.

Runners on first and second. One out. Was I about to witness a climatic walk-off moment in a World Series game?

Double play.

End of game.

Twenty four hours later, the Mets would lose again, ending the World Series and making the Royals the World Champs.

Good for them.

I would never again spend the kind of money I spent to go to the World Series.

It was a one-shot deal and I knew that going in. But I’m glad I did it and I’m glad fate pointed me in the direction to be able do it.

By the time the 2016 World Series finishes up, I’ll have paid off my credit card debt for this particular endeavor, too.

But, like I said, this was a moment I didn’t want to regret and thankfully I’m not going to.

Now I just wish the Olympics would come back to the United States.

Finally, my best friend is a Hall of Famer

Jody Norton, center, was one of the best distance runners in the state of Maine during the early 1980s. He was also my best friend. Today, he is finally a Hall of Famer.

Jody Norton, center in white, was one of the best distance runners in the state of Maine during the early 1980s. He was also my best friend. Today, he is finally a Hall of Famer.

When his high school athletic career started, he was a football player; all five-foot-seven, 135 pounds of him.

I don’t know what the hell he was thinking, but his two years playing for the John Bapst Memorial High School Crusaders, in Bangor, Maine, nobody could measure his statistics. That’s because I can’t imagine he had many.

They also couldn’t measure his heart, though. That, I knew from experience, was far too big for any run of the mill measuring device from the fall of 1979.

His destiny would not be found on a gridiron, though. He had to step outside the lines to find that out with a certainty. Sure he could run and get knocked down — and Lord knows he would always get up — but he was much better when nobody was trying to take his head off and pulverize him into a purple puddle.

He was much better when he was running in circles. He was much better running across trails through the woods.

He was just much better running.

• • •

The envelope arrived on my desk at work on a Thursday. It was addressed to me personally, my name over an address that I did not recognize. Yet still the letter found me.

The return address I knew by heart — 100 Broadway, Bangor, Maine — home of John Bapst Memorial High School; the place I spent my first three years of high school, and made too many memories to count and embrace.

The letter was from a gentleman named Mel MacKay, who is the present-day head of school at Bapst. What he wanted from me, I couldn’t imagine. I didn’t graduate from John Bapst, so I knew he wouldn’t be reaching out for money.

The first paragraph summed everything up rather straight-forward and succinctly.

“Dear John, On behalf of the John Bapst Alumni Association, I’m pleased to inform you that your nominee, Jody Norton, ’83, has been selected for induction into the John Bapst Athletic Hall of Fame.”

My reaction was a smile and one solitary thought: “It’s about fucking time.”

• • •

Jody James Norton was my best growing up. He was the best man at my wedding and I was the best man at his. You know the story.

Him and his younger brother, Robbie, they were the brothers I never had. We grew up together, each of us one year apart, with Jody being the oldest, me in the middle and Robbie the youngest, and to this very day I love them both will all my heart and there isn’t a thing I wouldn’t do for them.

Athletically, we pushed each other through every game we played; out-rights wars of one-on-one-one basketball on a nine-foot day, relishing the day I finally beat Jody (he wasn’t happy) and Robbie finally beat both of us (neither of us we’re happy).

Oh the stories we could tell.

Time and life has pulled us all apart, sent us down different roads we never would have imagined possible, but the memories bind us together without question. That’s ever-lasting.

Jody was my brother then and he is my brother now. It’s that simple, really.

• • •

Somewhere back in time, more than a decade ago now, I heard John Bapst had rekindled it’s Athletic Hall of Fame.

The small school — which had gone from a Catholic school of God to a strictly private non-religious school by the time I got there — had a long and storied sports, and plenty of athletes to choose from. Thus, I thought, it was a great idea to rekindle the honor.

Yet when I saw the list of athletes that were being inducted year after year my heart sank. Not because they weren’t great athletes — many of names I knew and recognized — but it was the name that was missing that got under my skin.

Jody Norton wasn’t on the list.

Jody Norton, front and center, and the author, to the rear and right, were part of a state championship team in the fall of 1982.

Jody Norton, front and center, and the author, to the rear and right, were part of a state championship team in the fall of 1982.

Like I said, Jody’s athletic career at Bapst got off to an underwhelming start. He played football, he played basketball, and he was your typical under-sized talent whose drive and work ethic and heart made up for his physical misgivings.

In the spring of his sophomore year, though, Jody was bitten by the running bug. A little bit of success on the track during his sophomore year sealed his fate.

Putting one foot in front of the other and beating everybody else to the finish line was his thing.

By the time he was done, he was a state champion during his first full season of cross country his junior year and he set a state record in the 3,200-meter run during track and field. His senior year, he finished second in the state as an individual, but he pulled us lolly-gaggers along and somehow led us to a state team championship. He was also part of a state championship basketball team, too.

How does an athlete with that type of resume and that kind of leadership not make it on the first ballot? Especially compared to some of the names that were there who, granted, were good athletes, but never represented the school in any type of state championship format or rewrote any state recordbook.

Angry, I wrote a letter via the “nomination process” nominating my friend and brother as a sure-fire Hall of Famer.

This was more than 10 years ago, mind you.

• • •

Year after year, the names piled up — again so many names familiar to me and, yes, so many good athletes, but Hall of Famers? They were teachers’ kids, board members’ kids, financial benefactors’ kids … see where this is going?

Years later a teacher from the school — who had been there when we both attended — agreed with me about my disgust for the process. “The politics of a private school education,” he said.

But I’m not here to put down the Hall of Famers who have been honored. Like I said, there are so many good athletes on there, deserving athletes, too, but I know in my heart and in my mind (to which I have devoted my life to serving the world of high school sports) that my friend Jody Norton deserved to be a Hall of Famer before many of them.

He represented John Bapst Memorial High School with class and grace every time he stepped foot off campus, be it for an athletic event or a casual stroll through the city.

I’m sure he still carries that pride with him into his adult life. After a great college career at St. Joseph College in Standish (speaking of memories), he still lives in Maine, as the owner of Norton Family Chiropractic. He is married to a wonderful woman and they have a great son together, too.

He was a great runner and a great friend, a great brother and, probably, the first real-life person I looked up to athletically and respected. I wanted to be as fast as him, but I was in no way good enough and didn’t have the inclination to work as hard as him.

All these years later, I’m so proud of him and even though in my mind he always was one, finally, my best friend is a Hall of Famer.